Instead, Palin doubled down on building—and monetizing—her personal brand, the plainspoken Alaskan frontierswoman who’s not ashamed of what she doesn’t know. (If her Couric interview showed to many that she needed remedial education in various political areas, she doesn’t seem to have received it.) And she hasn’t modified her lone-wolf management style, something many see as a massive handicap for any presidential race. “People are constantly close to her and then estranged,” one former McCain-campaign staffer said. “It’s a great weakness to her and will be a great challenge for her to ever put together a team that could mount a successful campaign.” Adds another former staffer who traveled on her plane: “She’s difficult to staff. She likes to make her own decisions. That’s the way she’s always been. She’s a strong-willed person.”
In New Orleans at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference a few weeks ago, as Palin’s PAC staff gathered to assess her operation, some of her close advisers expressed concern that her minimalist approach is damaging. According to one person familiar with the matter, when one adviser, Pam Pryor, suggested that the PAC should conduct some polling, the idea fell on deaf ears.
While careful not to say anything that might make her rear her head, some in the GOP Establishment whisper that they hope Palin stays in Wasilla. She may be useful in raising funds and drawing crowds, but Palin’s unseriousness and carnival antics damage the brand. “There’s a big piece of the Republican Party that doesn’t want her to run,” said one national Republican strategist.
Even among her base, some see her rogue operation as a form of selfishness and her cashing in as unseemly. And Palin’s close relationship with John McCain is a liability for her right-wing audience. In March, Palin made several campaign stops in Arizona with McCain and tried to convince the crowd of his tea-party bona fides. “People in the tea-party movement despise John McCain,” Judson Phillips says. “When was the last time John McCain drove his own car?”
The synergies that have driven Palin Inc. thus far may evaporate if she pursues a presidential run in earnest. There will be, eventually, interviews to do, with networks other than Fox. Why Palin would trade the presidency—and the salary—for a candidacy that faces possibly insurmountable political hurdles is a question to ponder.
As Palin took to the stage in New Orleans, I sat down for lunch with Levi Johnston at a local brewpub in Anchorage. Johnston was slumped down in his chair, faded green baseball cap pulled low. Tank Jones, his manager-bodyguard, sat across the table, fielding calls on his cell phones from television producers. It turns out that Johnston’s career is precisely parallel to Palin’s, a doppelgänger. In the middle of the night, Jones and Johnston had flown back (first-class, of course) to Alaska from L.A., where they had taped a segment for ET while taking meetings with producers to pitch Johnston’s reality show. “It’s everything I do, man. Kinda like the Kardashian show,” Johnston says, describing his proposed show. “It’s everything. Like one day I’ll be hunting, next day I’ll be, ‘Hey, I gotta fly to California tonight,’ so I’ll hop on a flight. Go to a party, maybe meet a chick, bring her back to Alaska and take her fishing and see if she can hang. If not, kick her out. Then go hang out with my son, or go to the track and race my dirt bike. Next week, up in the mountains sheep hunting. Or jumping out of airplanes. I don’t know. It’s not looking at glaciers and going to Bristol Bay.”
Johnston sipped a Diet Coke while picking at a plate of fried calamari, his preferred dish (“Every time I came here, I had the fish or something ’cause I was training for the Playgirl shoot,” he said when we first sat down).
Johnston told me he’s not surprised Palin is cashing in. “When she lost, I knew exactly what she was gonna do,” he says. “The whole time she was getting big-money offers for book and TV shows. I was like, All right, she’s gonna pick that up. It was just a matter of time before she quit.”
Johnston says he’s working on a memoir that would air the true story of the Palin household. “They’re never around each other,” Johnston says of Sarah and Todd. “It’s like they hate each other but they don’t want anyone to know it. I think they were gonna get a divorce, but then they were like, ‘Let’s not prove them right.’ I’ve never seen them sleep in the same room, he’s always on this little recliner. For years, they never really talked.” (This summer, Palin threw cold water on the divorce rumors, telling Politico that the speculation was “made up.”)